Finns and Americans in the workplace

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Article written by Richard D. Lewis

The merger of Microsoft and Nokia has now been in effect for over two years.  Richard Lewis comments on how Finns and Americans generally interact in the workplace.


In business, Finns and Americans share many common goals and ideas. Business is based on punctuality, solid figures, proven techniques, pragmatic reasoning, and technical competence. Both peoples are low context, preferring to gather information from established sources. Common sense and reliability are expected and usually demonstrated. Americans find their own frankness, self-reliance and tenacity mirrored in the Finnish psyche. Finns, like Americans, believe that all are created equal; any form of snobbery or pulling rank is abhorrent. Informality of discourse, egalitarian address, and a minimum of protocol typify Finnish/American meetings. Humor can play an important part in cementing empathy.

Finnish-USA Horizons

While many traits are similar, there are, however, considerable differences as well. In terms of communication, egalitarianism may dominate, but Finns are much more introverted than Americans. In the United States time is money, and the American wishes to get the deal done in the shortest time possible. This leads him to be frequently impatient, occasionally aggressive. Finns, by nature, are essentially patient and trained to curb aggressiveness, even open displays of feeling.

Americans see nothing wrong with extroversion; they are open, frank, and have nothing to hide. Finns, while valuing frank discussion, are careful about revealing their soul. Americans are talkative and persuasive. Finns are reticent, often silent, and trained not to force their opinions on others. If they disagree, they will often remain silent. Americans cannot stand silence during meetings, so they often take the Finn’s turn to speak (with the best of intentions, wishing to be more explicit and helpful). Finns, who distrust verbosity, may then go into their shell. Americans, used to open debate and give-and-take argument, will often interrupt a Finn when the latter finally decides to speak. This breaks a sacred rule for a Finn, who is taught from infancy not to interrupt.

American persuasiveness often leads to hyperbole, again with the best of intentions (where the American is trying to show the desirability of the deal). This conflicts with the Finnish tendency toward understatement and modesty. Americans, proud of their company’s success or even country, may innocently indulge in laudatory statements that the Finn sees as outright boasting. American businesspeople enter a meeting with a broad smile on their face, even for complete strangers. Finns enter first meetings unsmiling, as do Germans and Russians. Coaxing smiles out of Finns can be a two-hour task, unless you have some good stories. Finns find both American and Japanese smiles insincere.

Americans and Finns differ in their approach to supervision in the workplace. Finnish workers or clerical staff do not like being monitored, followed around, interfered with, or even praised when they are doing the job. American managers who pop their head around a Finnish assistant’s door with remarks like “Say Paavo, I’ve just had a great idea” or “Need any help?” only make nuisances of themselves if they do this frequently. Finnish women are less resentful—they maintain an inquiring stance when contemplating the workings of the mind of the foreigner, especially males—but Finnish men, particularly, hate disturbance once the directive has been properly issued. They wish to concentrate single-mindedly on the task in hand and, in fact, do it their way.

Americans working on interesting projects tend to maintain a constant dialogue with each other during the process. They pace up and down, think aloud, and welcome brainstorming when they can make it happen. Finns, by contrast, indulge in unilateral brainstorming, at a slower pace, but in considerable depth. Finns are not averse to teamwork in principle, but it is achieved in meeting periodically to show and compare the results of work that has already been carried out individually—and in their own corner.

Finns, like Americans, are great problem solvers—they enjoy both the challenge posed by difficulties and the satisfaction of surmounting hurdles. Americans solve problems more quickly than Finns do. Americans are impatient with their problems; Finns are patient with theirs. This difference sometimes causes a conflict, as the Finns react against being pushed toward a solution. They are more often perfectionist than the Americans, who are realistic enough but see life as short and are anxious to achieve a quota of attainments in a given time frame. Finnish perfectionism can be likened to that of the Germans in their goal of a perfectly ordered world or the Japanese in their quest for a zero-defect production. A Finn, like a German, guards constantly against leaving him- or herself open to criticism for earlier neglect or carelessness.

Conflict resolution is another area where Americans must tread carefully when on Finnish soil. Americans should bear in mind that rank may not be pulled, seniority may not replace logic, and bulldozing is out of the question when opinions collide. One of the most frequently heard questions emanating from foreign managers is “How do you get Finns to change their mind when they have taken a stand?” The answer to this question is that it is invariably difficult, is often impossible, and should rarely be attempted. Conflict with Finns is best avoided at any early stage. Once attitudes have hardened, Finns are among the most intransigent of people. On the other hand, they are most cooperative when their creative abilities are quickly recognized. It is not praise they seek but the early integration of their original ideas in the planning of a project. They must see themselves in it. When this is the case, they do not wish to dominate. Conflict will not occur if Finns are asked in the planning stage what they think about things and what they can contribute. They are not Japanese waiting for orders; they are fertile thinkers within Finnish conditions. American managers, having asked for Finnish advice, should then wait the time it takes to get an answer. It will be unhurried but well thought out and, frequently, appropriate.  Finns, on the other hand, will be eager to enter into conflict with people who try to best them with brute force, devious methods, or, worst of all, an overdose of charisma.

Differences in communication style between Finns and Americans do not, however, erect permanent barriers, though they can be disconcerting in the initial stages of contact. Soon each side perceives that a large amount of trust and goodwill will emanate from the dealings. Finns come to realize that the Americans, used to formulating get-to-know-you-quick strategies for greeting strangers, are not especially keen on deceiving the Finns with their instant friendliness. On the other hand, Americans soon see that Finnish reticence and gloomy expressions conceal hearts of gold.

The Finns, too, have a lot of cards up their sleeve and possess certain traits that may complicate the relationship. Though they are, in general, modest and not chauvinistic, they have an inner, deeply rooted conviction that Finnish norms are optimal. These include a sense of ultra-honesty, hatred of debt, true friendship, unswerving reliability, and perfection of workmanship. Their sense of separateness from other peoples, their lingering uneasiness in the presence of foreigners, their hidden contempt for verbosity lead them frequently to be judgmental. They admire the American frontier spirit without reservation: the entrepreneurial attitude, the risk taking, the mobility and opportunism, the luring path from rags to riches.

The breakneck pace of American life is another matter. The reflective Finn prizes unhurried calm. Okay, time is money, but single-minded pursuit of wealth conflicts with Finnish ideas about self-fulfillment, artistic goals, calm inventiveness, and concern with the environment. And why are Americans so desperate for popularity? Why do they long so much to be stars, to receive acclaim? Why do junior executives need constant praise and pep talks from their supervisors? A Finn just gets on with the job, monitoring him- or herself in the process. Why are Americans so suspicious of intellectuals and openly distrustful of “egg-heads”? Has recognition of dollar status somehow clouded perceptions of scholastic and moral values? And what about the spread of crime in the United States?

Finns are not particularly litigious; they are apprehensive about the number of lawyers required to mediate U.S. disputes, not to mention the astronomic sums involved. Whenever possible, Finns avoid a fuss. They see Americans as media-driven, not thinking enough for themselves. Finns, too, are great readers of newspapers(and books) but consider their press well balanced and playing down sensationalism. Americans have no great aversion to exaggeration, as they are future-orientated optimists who like to think big. Finns are practiced (selective) pessimists; they think in niches.

The cautiously critical Finnish view of American “excesses” does not result in anti-Americanism—far from it. Like the British, Finns see Americans as big, generous, genial friends (British would say cousins) who have had the mantle of world leadership thrust upon them, often botch it up (as others did before them), and fall prey to European cynicism and Asian competition. The Finn sees the American as a valued partner and friend whom he or she openly admires but secretly considers needful of Finnish balance and tranquility.

Solid and non-simplistic, Finns know more about the big nations than the latter know about Finland. They have seen their films, read their books, studied their histories and learned their languages. They have widened their horizons when often others have not. Americans, like the French, are openly messianic. They will save the world for democracy and free trade while the French will civilize us. Finns, though non-messianic on the surface, have a silent program. They have not yet stated their manifesto, but the more they internationalize, the surer they are that they have something to teach the rest of us. We may do well to listen.

When we know another culture better, we tend to like it more and discover ease of cooperation.  Hopefully the merger of Nokia and Microsoft will have a happy ending.


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